Inside billionaire Joe Ricketts' dreams of media empire
Joe Ricketts, the Nebraska-born mogul, fiscally conservative political donor and founder of the online brokerage titan TD Ameritrade, spent much of his life on the plains, where everything is flat.
So when he decided in 2006, at the age of 65, to get a pièd-a-terre in Manhattan, Ricketts went for altitude, buying a condo on the 78th floor of the Times Warner Center's north tower for $29.2 million.
It was there, one night in December of 2009, that he hosted an intimate holiday party attended by the staff of DNAinfo.com, the curiously named neighborhood news website Ricketts bankrolls.
Some guests were surprised by the feel of the apartment. It lacked the overweening worldliness you might expect from a billionaire's pad 750 feet over Central Park. The warm wooden furniture and touches of Americana evoked an almost countrified homeyness resonant of Ricketts' Midwestern roots—perhaps a nod here or there to the style of his primary residence in Little Jackson Hole, Wyo. But the understated decor was offset by sweeping views of the starry Manhattan skyline.
The party itself wasn’t an overly sophisticated affair, either, although there were plenty of drinks and hors d'oeuvres, including bison sliders, courtesy of High Plains Bison, another one of Ricketts’ entrepreneurial pursuits. (Ricketts would add a chocolate fondue fountain to the following year’s holiday bash.)
That night, DNAinfo’s journalists were getting an early taste of the paradox of Joe Ricketts in New York: Ambitious and adventurous as any of the city’s plutocrats, but without any concern for social cachet. Friendly chatter revealed a man with a grandfatherly mien, prone to talk about business and finance but also about the historical movies on his Netflix queue, or his frequent travels, which in recent years have included a cross-country motorcycle trip through Canada and a fly-fishing expedition in Chile. It’s a life full of the good things, but without any real gestures toward glamor.
Halfway through the evening, Ricketts’ few dozen guests gathered around him as he said a few words about his pride at the launch of the site. Sree Sreenivasan, then a dean at Columbia’s journalism school whom Ricketts had hired to help get DNAinfo off the ground, stepped forward with a token of appreciation.
In the Nov. 16 issue of New York, just a week after the site went live, “Hyperlocal-news provider DNAinfo.com” was featured in the magazine’s “Approval Matrix” graphic. It was sandwiched, roughly, between the latest album from Canadian hardcore band Fucked Up and Kate Winslet’s libel payout from the Daily Mail, in the lower left-hand corner of the quadrant that was the intersection of "brilliant" and "highbrow" (as opposed to "despicable" and "lowbrow"). Sreenivasan had gone to Jack’s Art Gallery on 111th and Broadway to have the page framed.
“If you’re in this quadrant after one week,” he recalled joking to Ricketts as he handed him the gift, “the only way you can go is in the other direction. But we’re going to do our best to stay up there.”
THE CONCEITS OF THE APPROVAL MATRIX AREN'T A PERFECT container for what DNAinfo has become in the nearly three years since it launched. Its editorial program is perhaps best described as neighborhood-centric local newspaper fare of a type that has never really been achievable by the citywide dailies in a place as big as New York City, even when they parachute into Flatbush or Woodside or Inwood for a slice-of-life moment. The coverage is exhaustive, reliable and fast—as likely to focus on the local debate over a sidewalk-cafe license on the Upper West Side as a shooting in Williamsburg.
“Check your parks/playgrounds and see whether the sprinklers are on,” wrote Billy Gorta, a senior editor who came to DNAinfo from the New York Post, in an email to staff on June 20. “Need outraged parents if they're off or pics of happy kids if they're on.”
The site’s initial strategy of placing reporters in just about every neighborhood on the island of Manhattan was accompanied by significant hires in strategic citywide beats with neighborhood implications. The reporter for Washington Heights can't spend all day in a lower Manhattan courthouse following a murder trial that has rocked his readers; and anyway, there are likely Washington Heights stories locked up in administration buildings all over lower Manhattan that require dedicated journalists to cover them. So with reporters assigned to the courts, the NYPD, City Hall and general breaking news, DNAinfo competes on an almost level playing field with the city dailies.
At the same time, the site has managed to evade the death spiral that's made the media industry such a lugubrious habitat in recent years, without availing itself of very much of the newspeak that surrounds the hyperlocal news movement. Rather, its editors speak the language of the traditional newspaper newsroom, and many of its recruits come from traditional journalism backgrounds. It's not an aggregator, it's not a viral-video machine, it's not a platform. It is, pure and simple, a local digital newspaper.
And it’s thriving, by all outward appearances. The newsroom headcount, including a growing collection of seasoned editors and reporters poached from the local tabloids, has more than tripled since launch. Earlier this year, coverage was extended to all five boroughs, and the site’s competitors have been in a sweat ever since DNAinfo entered the race with its frequent scoops and more nimble approach to breaking-news.
But the part of the operation about which Ricketts must be most excited is the list of advertisers—some 150 in the first quarter of 2012—who are paying to reach the more than one million users that DNAinfo says visit its website each month on average. (The site logged 597,000 unique visitors in June, up 21 percent from 493,000 a year earlier, according to the digital measurement firm comScore, which tends to skew lower than internal metrics.)
“Everybody is trying to figure out how to make money with information on the web,” Ricketts says in a short video about the site. (A spokeswoman for Ricketts said he was not available to be interviewed for this article.)
“Local news, community news, neighborhood news, is the perfect place for the neighborhood business to advertise. I don’t know of any other method of advertising for local merchants that would be so effective as we are.”
Developed amid the wreckage of the 2008 financial crash, DNAinfo was an experiment in counterintuitiveness. It entered the world at a time when even the mightiest media empires were being forced to rein in costs. In New York, McKinsey consultants were roaming the halls of Conde Nast, their eyes fixed on every redundant editorial assistant or complimentary bottle of Orangina. Around the corner at The New York Times, once impervious to the types of economic vagaries that could easily have sunk a less sturdy ship, dozens of journalists were tossed overboard as the paper weathered a precipitous advertising slump that persists to this day. For many smaller news outlets across the country that were hemorrhaging revenue as the recession cut into their budgets, the only thing to do was pray for the bleeding to stop.
There were some signs of life in the deepening bench of digital start-ups proliferating at the time. But most of these weren’t particularly interested in paying for high-quality original reporting. Instead, aggregation had come into vogue thanks to titles like The Huffington Post, Business Insider and Newser. They seemed to foreshadow a future in which all online journalism might take the form of search-maximized bite-size re-blogs.
Given this climate, to sink millions of dollars into a venture like DNAinfo seemed downright defiant.
“Joe had this idea that when things are bad, you push into the wind,” said Sreenivasan.
Now Ricketts is doubling down on his unlikely gamble: DNAinfo will soon debut in Chicago, creating the New York flagship’s first sister title, and marking the start of an expansion effort that could ultimately import the brand to cities across the United States. (The original is now officially called DNAinfo New York.) A handful of journalists have already been recruited, including veterans of The Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The Huffington Post, and the site is expected to launch sometime this fall. It’s a sign, according to the people running the place, that the ink won’t be red for much longer.
“If we keep going on the path that we’re on right now,” said Leela De Kretser, DNAinfo’s editorial director, “we’re pretty confident about being nicely profitable.”
She declined to say by when or by how much, invoking the oft-cited pretext that a private company is not at liberty to discuss its financials. But there was one obvious point De Kretser did concede over an alfresco lunch near the company’s West Midtown offices recently.
“Look,” she said, picking at a plate of chicken piccata, potatoes and mixed greens, “there’s no way we could do this without Mr. Ricketts. He’s the one making it possible.”
WHY IS RICKETTS DOING THIS?
It's not an easy question to answer. Ricketts is somewhat enigmatic. He’s not a recluse, but he seldom gives interviews, preferring instead to speak to his public, such as it is, directly, either through occasional blog posts on his personal website, or the professionally edited shorts that reside on his YouTube channel. He is not a player in the digital media scene; not among its savants, its big-name consultants or its bankrollers, whether they’re do-good charities or venture firms. He is active in politics, but he pays into his political activities directly. There is no discernible political agenda to DNAinfo, and if anything the site seems to skew against determining the course of the conversation, focusing instead on breaking straight news and saturating at the pavement rather than the council chamber and the executive offices of government or the boardrooms of the city’s power elites.
He doesn’t seem sentimental about the business at all, the way he does about bison, or historical films, or his kids’ obsession with the Chicago Cubs. It seems like he has the same basic faith in local news that a certain other Nebraskan billionaire has exhibited lately, but with a big difference.
“In Grand Island, Nebraska, everyone is interested in how the football team does,” Warren Buffett, who recently ramped up his investment in newspapers after being involved in the business one way or another for decades, told The New York Times in June. “They’re interested in who got married. They’re maybe even more interested in who got divorced.”
But Buffett also told the Times he was only interested in small markets; and he appears to have little interest in figuring out the digital future of his newspapers—at least not himself.
"The nice thing about it is that somebody can think about the best answer and we can copy him," he said. "Two or three years from now, you’ll see a much better-defined pattern of operations online and in print by papers.”
Ricketts' impetus appears to be almost the opposite.
As the story goes, according to three people who have heard Ricketts tell it, he was at home with his wife Marlene one day, flipping through the pages of a local newspaper, taking note of who was selling what in those interstices not occupied by editorial content, when he paused to reflect on something prescient: Before long, he predicted, there may not be papers like this for businesses to advertise in.
At the same time, even if newspapers seemed to be going the way of the dinosaur, it wasn’t as if local merchants would become extinct, or cease to require some means of getting their names before local consumers.
Plenty of people had already been trying to work through this conundrum, and in the area of classified listings, Craig Newmark had already long ago run away with the prize platform: Craigslist.
But for Ricketts, a man long fascinated by the industry-transforming potential of technology, the scenario struck a chord. TD Ameritrade had revolutionized securities trading, first via the touch-tone phone in 1988, and again via the Internet in 1994. Now Ricketts was envisioning a business that would have the same pioneering effect on local news, which was high in demand, but still hadn’t found a way to become profitable online.
“Joe is truly an entrepreneur,” said a person close to him. “He always has a handful of ideas that he thinks have the potential to be winners. If he sees something interesting, he’ll go after it. If he sees a business there, he’ll pursue it.”
It was this mindset that led Ricketts, in the early 1970s, to create the company that would eventually become TD Ameritrade, which is now the world’s largest online discount brokerage firm. The venture reflected the core values that had been instilled in Ricketts growing up in Nebraska City as early as the third grade, when he landed his very first job helping the janitor of the local courthouse sweep floors, empty wastebaskets and clean bathrooms: Hard work and dedication. (Ricketts retired from TD Ameritrade’s board last September.)
Nor would Ricketts have led his family’s $845 million purchase of the Cubs and Wrigley Field in 2009 if he didn’t think there were profits to reap. He certainly didn’t do it for a love of the team. Tall and burly, Ricketts looks like he could have made a good linebacker, but he was never really much of a sports guy. He played basketball during his senior year of high school, but likes to joke that he only made varsity because there were a total of five other guys on the squad. So it took more than his children’s fondness of baseball to convince Ricketts to open his coffers for the Cubs.
“I’ll tell ya dad,” Ricketts recalls his son Tom saying when the Tribune Company put the team up for sale. “They sell every ticket, every game, win or lose.”
Ricketts, who turned 71 on July 16, recently got into the entertainment business, too. In 2008, he founded the American Film Company, whose mission was to make accurate movies culled from the annals of America’s past—the types of pictures, as he told The New York Times last year, that he most often wanted to see, but which never seemed to be playing in the theater. The company’s first film, Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” about the only female charged in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination plot, premiered in 2011 to mixed reviews.
He also owns a 1,300-acre ranch and guest lodge in the bucolic wilderness of northwest Wyoming that’s not only “a wonderful place” for fly-fishing and cross-country skiing with “sports to enjoy in all of the seasons,” according to Ricketts, but an idyllic breeding ground for his award-winning percheron draft horses and bison herd. The latter is the centerpiece of High Plains Bison, Ricketts’ natural-meat retailing business, which he bills both as a healthy beef alternative (he still loves regular burgers, too) and a conservation effort.
Even in the context of Ricketts’ motley oeuvre, DNAinfo stands out as an anomaly. The man doesn’t harbor a passion for journalism, and neighborhood news hasn’t exactly been lucrative for other deep-pocketed individuals who’ve made big investments in this space, which makes his motivations all the more compelling.
This isn’t Rupert Murdoch letting the New York Post burn a hole through his pocket because it cements his position in Manhattan society. It’s not Jared Kushner swooping in to save The New York Observer because it wields influence with the city’s chattering classes. Indeed, if Joe Ricketts wanted to be a vanity publisher, he might have forked over a dollar for Newsweek and its affiliated mountain of debt back in 2010. (Ricketts’ rep declined to comment on a rumor floated by Keith Kelly last year that Ricketts was eyeing the Daily News.)
Is it possible there is only one reason he's doing this?
“He truly believes there is a business model,” said De Kretser.
"He doesn’t go after anything that he doesn’t think will make money,” his close associate told Capital.
IN EARLY 2008, RICKETTS BEGAN WORKING with some consultants, including the global marketing firm Digitas, to determine what it would take to turn his vision for DNAinfo into a reality. He also began taking meetings with the types of New York media insiders who might help steer his ambitions in the right direction.
One of these was Rebecca Haggerty, then a producer at WNET, who was introduced to Ricketts by her friend Alfred Levitt, president and general counsel of Hugo Enterprises, the holding company that oversees Ricketts’ for-profit ventures. (Ricketts also funds a superPac, Ending Spending, and a philanthropic foundation that promotes education for children in developing countries.)
Over coffee one afternoon in Midtown, Ricketts described to Haggety the “on-demand,” multimedia-oriented news and information hub that had been gestating in his brain for the past few years.
“He had a lot of enthusiasm,” she said. “It’s always interesting to meet someone with a lot of money who has an idea and confidence behind it. And in such a time of contraction, it seemed like people were always depressed. But Joe was not depressed.”
Haggerty signed on as a part-time consulting editor and introduced Ricketts to Sreenivasan, with whom she was familiar from her time as a mid-career master’s candidate at the Columbia Journalism School. In July of 2008, Sreenivasan scheduled a lunch with Haggerty, Levitt and Ricketts at Le Monde on 114th and Broadway.
As the Columbia Journalism School's resident technologist and new-media guru, and someone obviously invested in the prospect of creating jobs for reporters and editors, Sreenivasan was a fitting complement to Haggerty, whose background was mostly in TV news. He brought to the table not only the requisite journalism and digital-media bona fides, but access to a certain asset that might come in handy down the line: a wellspring of recent j-school grads who were looking for jobs. (Sreenivasan recently left his post as dean of student affairs at the j-school for a job as Columbia University’s inaugural chief digital officer. He was a contributing editor at DNAinfo until the beginning of this year.)
Like Haggerty, Sreenivasan found Ricketts’ quixotic energy intoxicating, and the more he chatted with him, the more he began to understand why Ricketts was so interested in the neighborhood news business.
“This is a guy from a small town who really values people and relationships,” said Sreenivasan. “I was convinced at the time, and I still am, that journalism needs a lot of experiments, and that this was going to be one of them. Having someone with deep pockets who was willing to invest was a good thing.”
Over the next few months, Ricketts’ team began laying the groundwork for a potential site. They felt confident from the outset that it could blossom as a local proposition, but there were questions as to where to plant the first seed. Sreenivasan suggested a college town like Austin, where the real estate and start-up costs would be lower. But there were two factors that kept pulling Ricketts back to New York: the city’s vast journalistic talent pool, and the belief that if you can make a business work here, you can make it work anywhere.
Here, too, Ricketts was bucking conventional wisdom, which holds that while New York City is a great place to start a hyperlocal business, its profile—a pedestrian town where people tend to shop, eat, drink and vote in close proximity to their own workplaces and doorsteps—isn't easily replicated in other cities. On the other hand, the resource commitment involved in canvassing the city's entire 470 square miles and eight million readers with neighborhood news reports suggests just how ambitiously Ricketts meant to scale the business from the start.
Ricketts felt just as strongly about the form the content should take, and once again, he bucked the trend. The possibilities of aggregation and blogging came up, but Ricketts and the others agreed that hiring professional reporters would create greater value.
In January of 2009, after a lot of brainstorming and back-and-forth between everyone involved, Haggerty and Sreenivasan went to Ricketts’ apartment with printouts of a PowerPoint proposal they’d developed. They gathered in the dining room around a dark and skinny wooden table that was long enough to accommodate all three generations of Ricketts’ immediate family. It was a clear winter day, and you could see out the window all the way up to the George Washington Bridge. A woman named Jennifer employed as Ricketts’ head of house brought them water and snacks.
Haggerty and Sreenivasan ran through an early model of the site that would morph into DNAinfo, a title coined by Ricketts as shorthand for “digital news and information.” It would cover New York neighborhood by neighborhood in a way that was cheaper and more nimble than other local news outlets. It would employ multimedia-savvy journalists who knew their way around a digital camera, were up for writing about community board meetings and crime scenes alike, and would work out of the very enclaves they were covering. It would get off the ground in Manhattan before expanding to the outer boroughs and eventually, if all went according to plan, other cities. The first year would be all about building up the editorial product. Selling ads and creating revenue streams would follow once the bones were in place.
The presentation lasted about an hour or so. Ricketts was enthusiastic about what they’d come up with.
“He seemed really on board with the idea,” said Haggerty.
Not long after their meeting, Ricketts came to a decision. As Sreenivasan put it: “He gave us the green light.”
LEELA DE KRETSER IS AN IRANIAN-BORN AUSTRALIAN of Sri Lankan and Indian descent whose father, Chris De Kretser, is a lifelong newsman. The 34-year-old worked her way up the food chain at a News Corp. paper in her native Melbourne before moving to New York to attend the Columbia Journalism School, from which she graduated in 2005.
Four years later, following a two-year stint at the New York Post and another two collaborating with Michael Wolff both on his 2008 Rupert Murdoch biography and his aggregation site, Newser, De Kretser was hired as a senior editor at DNAinfo by a small launch team that had been recruited to get the site off the ground. Within another year, she had sailed to the top of the masthead, and she now serves as DNAinfo’s captain overseeing both the newsroom and the sales side.
“She’s one of the greatest news minds I’ve ever met,” said Wolff, De Kretser’s neighbor in the East Village, where she lives with her husband, Janon Fisher (a Daily News reporter), and their 4-year-old son, Janon Jr.
Central to the business model for which De Kretser is ultimately responsible is a cost-structure free of the fat that weighs down many traditional news organizations. There are no printing expenses, obviously, and aside from the dollars devoted to technology and infrastructure, the majority of what they’re spending goes straight to the cost of humans reporting the news and selling ads against it.
De Kretser declined to discuss DNAinfo’s budget. But a source with knowledge of company salaries said entry-level reporters make a minimum of $35,000 a year. And there is of course a cadre of senior reporters and editors who were recruited from larger publications at much higher pay grades. For instance, the site was able to afford a heavyweight like Murray Weiss, who’d spent 24 years at the Post and another 12 at the News before that.
“DNAinfo is getting the resources it needs,” said Weiss. “This is not a big newspaper that’s firing people, laying people off, having major turnover. It has the opposite feel.”
With a total full-time staff of roughly 60 at an absolute minimum of $35,000 a year plus benefits, it looks like a yearly payroll scheme of at least $3 million, and that's very conservative. There’s also rent. Comparable spaces in DNAinfo’s Seventh Avenue building were recently listed at $55 per square foot. At that rate, the site’s 5000-square-foot, eighth-floor offices on the corner of 53rd Street would cost $275,000 a year. (A spokeswoman said the rent was a lot less than that, but would not disclose the figure.)
Even for an organization that's lean on operating expenses, covering just these nuts alone in the present advertising market looks like a steep climb. But whatever amount Ricketts has resigned himself to losing on the venture during its infancy, De Kretser believes it’s ultimately monetizable.
“Our costs for getting to 1.2 million uniques in a little over a year?” she said. “I think people would be pretty impressed by that.”
DNAinfo claims it has delivered on average roughly 10.8 million pageviews a month over the past year. With three to four ads on most pages at standard CPMs, online advertising alone can't possibly be supporting the site's expansion, hence additional revenue streams like a deals & discounts section, a recently launched New York business directory and sponsored events.
But display is still a big piece of the pie. And the site’s 12-person sales team, said De Kretser, is bullish about knocking on doors in the neighborhoods where DNAinfo’s reporters have burnished the brand’s reputation, luring loyal readers through consistent community board coverage, micro scoops and rapid-response turn-around when it comes to breaking news like fires and crime-scenes.
“When we look at Google Analytics” during such events, said John Darby, DNAinfo’s vice president of marketing, “we’re penetrating 50 percent of the neighborhood. We just do that over and over and over, and I think that’s been the secret to getting people to come to the site, and then keeping them coming back.”
The response from advertisers has been encouraging. City MD, an urgent care center with offices in four Manhattan neighborhoods, has been paying for real estate on DNAinfo.com for the past year-and-a-half. Ned Shami, City MD’s chief operating officer, said DNAinfo is consistently one of the top three refererers to City MD’s website.
“What we really liked about them was that they targeted very specific neighborhoods, which is similar to our practice,” he said. “It was a perfect match.”
De Kretser wouldn’t say how many advertisers DNAinfo had ensnared since finishing out the first quarter of 2012 with the aforementioned 150. But in general, statistics suggest a rising tide.
New York City businesses are expected to spend $735.1 million on local online advertising by 2015, up from a projected $443.5 million in 2012 and $279.2 million in 2009, according to data from Borrell Associates, an advertising research firm. Businesses within the Chicago TV market, which is larger than the five boroughs, are expected to spend roughly $1.12 billion on local advertising in 2015, up from $489.4 million in 2009. The national online-ad-spending total is expected to reach $30.53 billion by 2015, up from $13.35 billion in 2009.
THE LOCAL ONLINE NEWS MODEL HASN'T proven to the satisfaction of most who watch the latest developments in digital media that it can scale into large businesses with wide profit margins. But that hasn't stopped it from being one of the hotter prospects for innovation right now.
“It’s a faith-based effort at this point,” said Colby Atwood, Borrell’s president. “There have been pockets of success that are just enough to encourage people to keep trying, but no one’s really been able to scale it. It’s been a rocky road.”
One telling example is Patch, which is said to be losing $150 million a year despite AOL’s massive investment in the network of more than 800 hyperlocal sites. (Patch competes directly with DNAinfo in several Brooklyn neighborhoods.) Nor did TBD.com, a Beltway venture that looked similar to DNAinfo when it launched in August of 2010, pan out the way Allbritton Communications hoped it would. Despite getting to 1.5 million uniques in five months, the majority of TBD’s two-dozen-person editorial staff was laid off within a year, and the site repositioned itself as a niche arts and culture offering.
“I think if it had been given the runway it was promised, it would be in a different place right now,” said Jim Brady, TBD’s former general manager, who nonetheless has a good feeling about DNAinfo’s chances for long-term growth, mostly because Ricketts appears to be willing to start big, and go the distance with it.
“I like DNA’s model because they’re doing the type of journalism that appeals to people living in communities, but they’re not trying to bite off such a narrow piece of the map that it’s almost impossible to monetize,” he said. “That larger net is important, and they are making a mark, clearly. But you have to have a long runway to do these types of things.”
Ken Doctor, a media analyst with Outsell, agrees.
“Joe Ricketts' investment is noteworthy, especially if he has committed to a long time horizon, three to five years,” he said. “That's how long it would optimistically take to get such a costly enterprise to profitability. If he is willing to run it at this level for that long, or beyond, and subsidize, God bless him. The reason it will take that long is revenue is going to be a long build.”
De Kretser said the site had the journalistic firepower and traffic to back up its confidence.
“Our editors and reporters are just really good at predicting what types of stories are going to do well,” she said. “That’s why there’s optimism.”
Editorially, DNAinfo marries the lean, nimble approach of iterative blogging with the newsroom structure of a city desk.
Its tone is a more sober approximation of the blunt prose of the News and Post, but the site attacks stories with “the ferociousness of the tabloids,” as De Kretser put it, while trying to avoid what she called “the idiocy that’s involved when they jump on some sort of campaigning issue.”
It doesn’t hurt that both tabloids, but especially the News, have in recent years repositioned their websites as more national-facing products, creating a convenient opening for DNAinfo’s hyperlocal fare. At the same time, the site is faster and more prodigious than New York’s sometimes soporific community newspapers.
“I don’t think people rely on West Side Spirit and Our Town for breaking news,” said Tom Allon, a mayoral candidate and the owner of Manhattan Media, which publishes both papers. He added: “People who tend to read community papers like ours tend to be a bit older. DNAinfo’s audience is probably younger.”
DNAinfo has 32 reporter-producers covering at least two dozen neighborhoods across the five boroughs, as well as other citywide beats. Each reporter is managed by one of eight editors who shepherd stories from assignment to completion. (Some editors cover beats on the side.)
There’s a daily pitch meeting where editors discuss what’s coming in from their writers, who file from coffee shops and park benches out in their assigned neighborhoods and are expected to file up to three stories a day as well as shooting photo and video. The editors, who sit in a small bullpen with three flat-screen TVs usually tuned to NY1, CNN and one of the local affiliates, share copy-editing and top-editing responsibilities, and they arrive in three separate shifts from the early a.m. to the late evening (there’s a separate weekend editor, too).
They keep their eyes glued to Chartbeat and Google Analytics, watching the site’s traffic spike and recede while as many as 60 items during a typical news cycle are published throughout the day. When stories go viral, the bullpen comes alive, as was the case on July 2 when two DNAinfo reporters broke news about how the NYPD had created a “wanted” poster for a Harlem couple who film stop-and-frisk incidents and upload them to YouTube. The piece got picked up by The Drudge Report, Reddit and MediaTakeOut, among others, resulting in astronomical pageviews.
“It’s just been fucking wildfire for us,” said Gorta, the editor who sent out that memo about checking sprinklers in the local parks. “Fucking wildfire!”
In De Kretser’s early conversations with DNAinfo’s launch team, she described her vision for DNAinfo as a mix of “scoops and quirks,” the former being straight-up news-breaks, the latter being the types of idiosyncratic stories that you could only get from being deeply embedded in a particular neighborhood, but that are so irresistible people will want to read them no matter where they live—a drunk puppy-buying epidemic in the West Village, for instance; the pizza-eating goat of McDougal street; a Staten Island mcmansion whose grounds are festooned with life-sized statues of pirates, cavemen, dinosaurs, zoo animals, dragons and other strange creatures.
Community board meetings, where you won’t find reporters from the tabloids or the Times with any degree of regularity, tend to be a reliable source of such journalistic manna.
“One time Matt Dillon showed up to complain about a noisy restaurant,” said Leslie Albrecht, a DNAinfo reporter who used to cover the Upper West Side. (Her new beat is Park Slope.) “You’re only gonna get that by sitting in the room, seeing him there, and then chasing him out of the room.”
The site has a record of cracking news with regional and even nationwide appeal, too, like the scandal it broke open last January concerning the National Arts Club, “a fraying organization,” as news editor Amy Zimmer reported, “run at the whim of board president O. Aldon James — a man known to favor bow ties, exotic birds and pink eyewear.”
Similarly, last fall, Weiss had a run of high-profile stories about NYPD ticket-fixing, which he helped expose by publishing surreptitiously recorded phone conversations he had obtained.
But DNAinfo achieved its biggest coup in February, when Weiss and reporter Shayna Jacobs, one of DNAinfo’s earliest young stars, beat both the Post and the News to the tabloid-tailored saga of Anna Gristina, the animal-loving suburban soccer-mom accused of running a multi-million-dollar Upper East Side brothel with ties to rich and powerful men. (Ironically, Jacobs was poached by the News about a month later; in return, De Kretser managed in early July to nab another News-er, assistant city editor James Fanelli, bringing her tally of tabloid vets to 10.) Weiss followed up the Upper East Side madame story with an even sexier scoop that John Edwards was among Gristina’s alleged clients.
“In terms of national exposure, the Edwards story really catapulted us,” said Nicole Bode, DNAinfo’s deputy editor and a former News reporter of 10 years.
Ricketts appears to be paying attention to at least some of what’s being published on the site.
“I’m so proud of the team at DNAinfo.com for their great work breaking important stories in the news capital of the world,” he wrote in a March 8 blog post on his personal website. “Case in point — they beat out the entire New York news media, including all the major dailies and every TV and radio station, to break the story on Madam Gristina. Hyper-local reporting is the future of journalism and this shows why it works.”
Ricketts was likewise enthused by the results of this year’s New York Press Club Awards, in which DNAinfo notched six wins, more than any other news outlet aside from the Associated Press, which also won six.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the team,” he wrote on May 13.
A FEW DAYS LATER, ON MAY 17, THE NEW YORK TIMES PUBLISHED a front-page story reporting that a “group of high-profile Republican strategists is working with a conservative billionaire on a proposal to mount one of the most provocative campaigns of the ‘super PAC’ era and attack President Obama in ways that Republicans have so far shied away from.”
The conservative billionaire was Ricketts; the proposal was a $10 million plan that called for “running commercials linking Mr. Obama to incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons made him a highly charged figure in the 2008 campaign,” according to the Times.
Surprisingly, the piece didn’t exactly set the DNAinfo newsroom ablaze when it landed that morning, according to the staffers interviewed for this article.
“His politics were not a secret around here,” said Michael Ventura, DNAinfo’s managing editor. “He’s been very adamant about keeping them separate from the company. He doesn’t tell us how to write our stories.”
By the afternoon, Ricketts had distanced himself from the episode. A statement issued by his Ending Spending Action Fund stated: “Not only was this plan merely a proposal – one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors – but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take.”
Nevertheless, Ricketts, who is a registered independent, reassured the newsroom that he had no political agenda for the site. He wrote in a memo: “My personal politics should have absolutely no impact on your work as objective, fair-minded journalists. I am enormously proud of what everyone at DNAinfo has accomplished and I trust that you will continue to cover the news fairly and fearlessly in accordance with the highest standards of your profession.”
The remarks were similar to what Ricketts told DNAinfo’s editorial staff not long after the site launched. It was his first and only sit-down with the troops, and he drove home the point that he wanted the site to produce straightforward news devoid of editorializing or spin. For the assembled journalists, these were comforting words to hear, considering it wasn't implausible that Ricketts’ political interests might at times intersect with DNAinfo’s local content.
Take the congressional primary contest between Charlie Rangel and Adriano Espaillat, whose bid to unseat the incumbent Democratic representative had been boosted by the Campaign for Primary Accountability, an outside group that counts Ricketts among its financial supporters. Asked on June 8 about DNAinfo’s coverage of the race, De Kretser replied in an email: “I had no idea he was involved, which really is a symptom of how independent the newsroom is from Mr. Ricketts’ political beliefs.”
The following note was appended to a story about the race published the following week: “The owner of DNAinfo.com, Joe Ricketts, made a contribution to the Campaign for Primary Accountability in 2011.” (Espaillat conceded defeat on July 9.)
Such disclosures may become more frequent after DNAinfo goes live in Chicago in the coming months. The Ricketts family has a much larger footprint there, between the Cubs, Wrigley Field and the Ricketts kids’ community and business ties. (Three out of four of them live in the city.)
But De Kretser expects that for the most part, DNAinfo Chicago will mirror the editorial and business model of DNAinfo New York.
“Chicago is home to a lot of small businesses, which are key,” she said in an email. “Just as we will embed an editorial team in each neighborhood, so too will we have neighborhood sales reps focused on selling online advertising.”
There’s no office yet, but recruitment is in full swing. Robert K. Elder, a former Chicago Tribune reporter and former Chicago regional editor of Patch, has been named managing editor. Senior editors include Jennifer Sabella, who was previously Chicago editor for the Huffington Post and a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, and Justin Breen, who came from the Times of Northwest Indiana. The site’s inaugural reporter-producer is Becky Schlikerman, also a Tribune and Sun-Times alum.
De Kretser wouldn’t speculate as to whether the map of America might one day be dotted with DNAinfo editions. But that appears to be the dream.
On April 22, 2010, Ricketts gave a talk at the Midlands Venture Forum, an Omaha-based non-profit that supports local entrepreneurs. Dressed in a black suit and a striped pink-and-black tie, he reflected on his life’s work—founding TD Ameritrade, buying the Cubs, making “The Conspirator,” and so on.
When Ricketts got to the part about DNAinfo, he told the crowd of roughly 40 that the plan was to start in “the local markets.” But his ambitions were clearly much bigger.
“What I would like to do is take [it] across the world if I live long enough,” he said. And then, a throwaway phrase that might just be the real answer for why Ricketts made DNAinfo in the first place: “It’s a lot of fun.”